President Obama's Dog Trainer Dies
President Obama's Dog Trainer Dies, Hear One of Her Final Interview - Steve Dale's Pet World
Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz was only 52-years old, when according to a Washington Post story, she died on January 12. There's no word on the specific cause of death, but after being admitted to the hospital she soon died after falling into a coma.
Sylvia-Stasiewicz started training Bo, the Obama family Portuguese water dog, at the suggestion of Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Massachusetts Democratic senator. The Kennedy family had sent its three dogs, Splash, Sunny and Cappy, to be trained by her and had been pleased with the results.
"She had a wonderful presence," Vicki Kennedy said Friday in an interview. "They would instantly look up to her."
When Cesar Millan said Bo, the Obama family dog was untrained, and clearly the leader in the White House, I reached Dawn by phone. We spoke about that, about her style of dog training and her book, "The Love that Dog Training Program" on my Steve Dale's Pet World Radio Show, listen HERE.
I wrote a corresponding feature story for my Tribune Media Services national column. And Dawn sent me a nice note thanking me for this piece.
First family's dog trainer weighs in on Bo's progress
It seems like everyone is beating up on President Barack Obama. Even the Dog Whisperer is growling at him.
Cesar Millan has appeared on several national TV shows suggesting that the First Family's Portuguese Water Dog, Bo, is undisciplined and in charge because he pulls on the leash, sometimes zigzaging every which way.
On "60 Minutes," Millan told Leslie Stahl: "If your dog doesn't learn to follow, you'll never have a disciplined pet. I've seen them (President Obama and Bo since) day one, and definitely, day one was not a good scene."
When speaking about Bo or, for that matter, any dog pulling at the leash, Millan has suggested the dog is in charge.
Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz had not heard about Millan's statements, which have been splashed all over the media. Still, she's precisely the right person to respond to those statements. After all, she is the First Family's dog trainer.
Her first response to hearing the criticism? "It's very humorous," she said with a laugh. "A dog pulling doesn't mean the dog is in charge. When I see a dog pulling that never enters my mind."
She maintains that Bo does know the command to heel. (click continue reading)
She points out that in many photos Bo may be pulling simply because he hasn't been asked to heal. "Besides, why must a dog always walk beside you in a heel? That's not fun," she adds.
She points out that Bo and the President aren't the only ones around when these photos of Bo pulling on the leash are taken. Obviously, there are the photographers, perhaps also presidential aids and Secret Service staff. Bo may be distracted by everything going on.
Millan has said he prefers that dogs walk behind him to demonstrate his leadership. It's an idea many professional behaviorists and trainers suggest is "made up" with no science to back it up. Sylvia-Stasiewicz agrees.
Here's Bo's story: He was purchased by a family as a young, enthusiastic puppy from the same breeder who'd supplied the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, with their Portuguese Water Dogs. His original name was Charlie, and Sylvia-Stasiewicz says the family loved him, but the other dog in the house apparently didn't have the patience for a puppy.
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Charlie was returned to the breeder. Soon after, Vicki Kennedy phoned Sylvia-Stasiewicz, asking her if she could take in the puppy to observe and assess him until he could be re-homed. Sylvia-Stasiewicz had trained other Portuguese Water Dogs owned by the Kennedys, including Charlie's brother. She agreed to take the dog. "I had no idea that this dog might go to the President," she says.
Each time Vicki periodically checked in for an assessment, the report improved. "He was perfect," Sylvia-Stasiewicz says of Bo. "He was not over the top with energy. He was bright and learned quickly. I really bonded with him," she says and pauses, lowering her voice to a whisper. "I was secretly hoping whatever family was waiting for Charlie would change their minds."
Finally, she learned that the Kennedys were gifting the dog to Melia and Sasha Obama. "I cried when I gave up the dog," she says.
Still, that wasn't the end of Bo's training. Sylvia-Stasiewicz returned to the White House several times to work with the First Dog, by then re-named Bo.
"Obviously, when working with a family, you have to communicate with the owners," she says. "The majority of my discussions were with staff members. I did talk to the President, but they were brief, I-have-to-go (conversations). He's a busy man." She spent a bit of time with Michelle Obama.
Like Vicki (Kennedy), Michelle is very dog savvy," she adds. "They didn't need a lot of help. I do have a training manual I give to all my students." That manual has been transformed into Sylvia-Stasiewicz's elaborate dog-training book, "The Love That Dog Training Program" (Workman Publishing, New York, NY, 2010; $23.95).
The book, filled with lots of images, offers easy-to-follow, step-by-step training techniques, all using science-based positive reinforcement. One of the methods used by Sylvia-Stasiewicz is to focus on hand signals before worrying about teaching puppies words like "sit" or "stay."
"Dogs are visually-oriented, and they're more likely to look to you for these visual cues, so I teach that first," she says. "Dogs learn English as a second language; they're watching our body language all the time. That's how they can tell whether it's Monday or Saturday. Seeing you put on the work shoes means it's a day you'll be gone. Seeing you put on the sneakers in the morning means the dog may get a walk."
As for Bo pulling on that leash and causing apparent consternation for Millan, there's one more point to make: At least some of the photos were taken just as Bo went outside. What you don't see is what the dog does next. Mother nature may simply be calling. Sylvia-Stasiewicz laughs and says, "Exactly true."
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